Are Farmer's Markets Frugal or a Luxury?
We have always shopped farmer's markets sporadically, but this is the first season that we are on a specific weekly grocery budget. As we prepared to hit the opening weekend of our local farmer's market, I wondered: Is this going to help me stay under budget or strain the budget?
Turns out, I'm not the only one to wonder whether I was paying more for the pleasure of farmer's market shopping: the freshness, the -- at many markets -- dazzling choices, the opportunity to meet the farmers, the chance to show off your cute vegetable basket/baby in Baby Bjorn/new caftan. There is no argument that most farmer's market produce is much better than what you get at conventional supermarkets. But is it affordable?
Several bloggers did an item-by-item comparison and realized they were paying less for better at the farmer's market:
Beck's and Posh compared the sublime farmer's market at San Francisco's Ferry Plaza, one of the priciest you'll find, to Safeway and was surprised to see that Safeway's crappy vegetables usually cost her more.
Get Rich Slowly found that the farmer's market was on par with Safeway on price but not the local produce stand, which it deemd the best all-around value.
In Florida, The Leftover Queen found better prices at the farmer's market than at her local grocery.
So what about the suburbs of Chicago? I headed out to our area's first farmer's market this weekend to find out. The market in my town opened two weeks earlier than normal this year, and since we are barely past danger of frost around here, not much has been growing yet on local farms. So it was not a big surprise to find very little produce to choose from. Plenty of people showed up, however, to enjoy the sunshine and -- this is important -- the homemade donuts sold each week by nonprofit organizations.
After setting up the husband and kids with donuts and coffee and casing the market thoroughly, I bought a bag of spinach, two pounds of asparagus, two bunches of green onions, and half a pound of cheese. None of it was organic -- even in full swing my local market doesn't have a ton of organic growers -- but the cheese was BGH-free ("From Amish cows," the Wisconsin farmer told me.) I paid $21.25 for a pretty small bag of food.
Here's how the prices I paid stack up to what I usually pay:
Farmer's Market Grocery Store
spinach $3.25 $1 on sale
green onions 2/$5 never buy this but woudln't pay that much
asparagus $3/lb same or better on sale
cheese $14/lb buy lower quality for $4/lb when I can find it
When you put aside the cheese, which was a delcious luxury, I paid more at the farmer's market than I would at the store, but not outrageously so. It seems inevitable that for people who rely on loss leaders for much of their food, like I do, you're going to pay more when you buy directy from the farmer. After all, while supermarkets might offer a special on asparagus to get you in the door and sell you $4 boxes of cereal, farmers can't.
At any rate, I'm hoping that when my local market gets into full swing I'll have some lower-cost items to choose from and maybe even see lower prices due to more competition. We'll see.
I am also looking into joining a CSA for the summer, but so far haven't found quite the right one.